Why Asia is still waiting for inflight Wi-fi, let alone free Wi-fi

While North America is big enough to use ground stations for onboard Wi-fi, in Asia airlines must use costly satellite connections. Finally fliers including Cathay Pacific are starting to offer it, at a price

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 August, 2015, 10:06am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 August, 2015, 10:17am

Hong Kong may be one of the world's most connected cities, but once you are on the plane the clock winds back 10 years. At 35,000 feet, Wi-fi is a scarce, slow and expensive commodity, with only businesspeople on expenses permitted to make an attempt at sending an email or WhatsApp message.

Expensive, unreliable and only sporadically available, Wi-fi in the sky in Asia is the mirror opposite of what's happening below. European airlines have also been slow to connect to the internet, but fly within the US and you will usually find a Wi-fi connection. Most US domestic carriers offer in-flight Wi-fi for free, so why is the rest of the world so slow on the uptake?

It wasn't meant to be this way. Almost a decade ago I took a flight from London to Tokyo on Japan Airlines that offered a free Wi-fi connection. This was pre-smartphone, but I used Skype on a laptop while flying over Siberia. Unfortunately, that pioneering Boeing Connexion Wi-fi service was already in its death throes, and closed at the end of 2006.

How could something we now think of as so intrinsic to modern living as Wi-fi be terminated? No one was interested in Wi-fi. Only geeks and road warriors carrying hefty laptops wanted it, but even most of them didn't want to pay for it. It was too slow.

We're now in a new era where Wi-fi is seen almost as a human right. Inflight Wi-fi provider GoGo says that 85 per cent of travellers in Asia take their own devices on flights, which is significantly more than in the US. Not only that, but flying is becoming a much more significant part of people's lives. In 2009 just over 28 million people flew from Hong Kong. There were more than 37 million by 2013.

So why do US flyers get preferential treatment? Actually, it's more a question of technology. The vast land mass of North America has seen the growth of an Air to Ground (ATG) network, which relies on cellular towers, just like the phone network. Fix a small, cheap antenna on the bottom of a plane and everyone on board gets a free Wi-fi connection.

In Asia and Europe - and many long-haul flights around the world - ATG isn't practical since the system won't work over oceans.

For most of the world, and for all long-haul flights, satellite connectivity is the answer, but it's more expensive and slower to install. A larger antenna is needed on the top of the plane, which pans and rotates to search for a satellite. This is the technology behind the inflight Wi-fi experiments in Asia so far. Singapore Airlines, Etihad and Lufthansa have all offered Wi-fi on some long-haul aircraft on selected routes, though most charge by the megabyte, which leads to predictable problems. Last November, a Canadian traveller flying on Singapore Airlines got a Wi-fi bill for US$1,171.

Cathay Pacific recently confirmed that Wi-fi would be installed on 12 of its new Airbus A350 aircraft scheduled to begin flying in 2016. China Eastern began offering Wi-fi in June on some long-haul routes, while Air China, China Southern and Hainan Airlines are expected to follow soon.

Would you pay for inflight Wi-fi? The good news is that satellite-based inflight Wi-fi is by far the fastest technology, so perhaps it will be worth the wait and the expense. By 2020, it's expected to be ubiquitous globally, but airlines charging for Wi-fi can only be a passing phase. As soon as you choose one airline over another because of its free or cheap Wi-fi, you'll know that its days as a paid-for service are almost over. Only then will we be able to look forward to being on the cloud, in the clouds.